Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern are coaches with staying power

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald will gather his players in the visiting locker room at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday and tell them a story from his past.

The walls will be pink. His language may be a little blue.

Fitzgerald was a star linebacker for the Wildcats on Veterans Day 1995 when he broke his leg in a game against Iowa. It kept him from playing in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day 1996.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz isn't always as stoic as fans may think. Here, he disputes a call in last Saturday's loss at Purdue. In his 20th season, Ferentz is the longest-tenured head coach in major-college football, synonymous with the Hawkeye brand.

He hasn’t forgotten.

“One of the reasons why Northwestern sees Iowa as a rival is very much a personal thing for Fitz,” said C.J. Bacher, who quarterbacked Fitzgerald’s teams to wins at Kinnick in 2006 and ’08. “We’ve all embraced it. The team just loves Fitz. We always looked forward to Iowa week.”

In the home locker room, another coach who has put his stamp on a Big Ten Conference football program will be rallying his Hawkeyes after a two-game losing streak. Kirk Ferentz may not speak about his own pain, but he’ll have a message that resonates just as much.

“It’s not a show. He’s not two-faced,” Iowa senior center Keegan Render said of his head coach. “What he preaches is what he does. He’s going to be right there with us. He just sticks up for his players.

“You guys see the stoic side of him and all this business. We see the great personality he has behind closed doors.”

Ferentz has led Iowa (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) for 20 seasons, the longest active tenure in major-college football.

Fitzgerald, 43, is in his 13th autumn at the helm of his alma mater, with no signs that he’s ever leaving. He is second to Ferentz in Big Ten staying power. It's remarkable longevity in an era when coaches are quick to bolt for new jobs and even quicker to be replaced at the first hint of losing.

The coaches may have different public personas, but they have built teams with the same underlying philosophy. That will be evident when the game kicks off at 2:42 p.m. on Fox-TV.

“It’s all about development,” Bacher said. “That’s what Iowa and Northwestern, probably better than anybody else in the Big Ten, are able to do is develop players during their time in school.”

Ferentz connects with players through fatherly gestures

Ferentz took over at Iowa on Dec. 2, 1998, but he was no stranger to the Hawkeye culture. He was the offensive line coach under Hayden Fry from 1981-89.

He had two losing seasons at the outset. He’s had two in the 18 years since.

That sustained stretch of winning is not lost on Ferentz’s players.

“Just seeing his continued success and the level that he took it to,” Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley said, “that’s really driven me to get better at my preparation. He sets the example.”

Ferentz has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year four times. His Hawkeyes will be making a 16th bowl game appearance in 18 seasons. He became the school’s all-time winningest football coach this season, with a current record of 149-100. And he’s under contract through 2025.

Ferentz has become synonymous with Hawkeye football.

“Just look around. There’s guys getting fired every day,” Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson said. “A guy like him, with all the things that he preaches, it makes sense that he’s been around forever.”

Ferentz, like Fry, gets through to his players with fatherly gestures. He has an open-door policy and frequently stops his athletes in the hallway to inquire about their families and life outside football. Render said Ferentz is funnier than outsiders realize, frequently finding ways to lighten the mood in team meetings with a well-placed barb.

“You talk to him a second and you can tell he actually cares about you as a person,” Hockenson said. “Every once in a while he’ll come up to you and say, ‘Hey, good job today.’ And that stuff means a lot as a player, hearing that from your head coach. You just know something’s going right when he takes time out of his day to listen to you and tell you good job.”

Fitzgerald injects his enthusiasm into Northwestern program 

Fitzgerald became Northwestern’s head coach at age 31 and under excruciating conditions. He was coaching the team’s linebackers and coordinating recruiting efforts when Randy Walker died of a heart attack at age 52 in the summer of 2006. Fitzgerald took over a week later.

“He did everything he could to be an extension of Randy Walker that first season,” said Bacher, then a sophomore.

“Then, he just became more and more himself and more and more of a players’ coach. The evolution that I’ve been able to witness first-hand and even since I’ve graduated, he’s really taken the program and made it his own.”

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald (left, shaking Kirk Ferentz's hand) is in his 13th season leading his alma mater. Matchups with the Hawkeyes bring out the best in him, for personal reasons he is happy to share with his players.

Northwestern went 4-8 in Fitzgerald’s troubled first season. There have been at least five wins in each campaign since, with eight bowl appearances. Like Ferentz, Fitzgerald excels at taking high school players who aren’t the darlings of the recruiting world and molding them into productive college players.

He brings the Wildcats (5-4, 5-1) into Kinnick on Saturday with the chance to go to 6-1 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1996, when he was a player.

“He just has a way of getting you excited,” Bacher said. “I think that’s something that’s pervasive throughout everything he does, whether it’s motivating the team for the upcoming game or for a workout or even a practice.”

It was in those early practice sessions that Bacher got a feel for how his new coach operated. One of the first changes Fitzgerald made was to eliminate the conditioning work that would typically occur at the end of practices. He knew players were holding back during the heat of practice to conserve energy for the wind sprints at the conclusion.

“My senior year, we only ran conditioning after practice a handful of times and it was all about us practicing faster, practicing  harder when it mattered,” Bacher said. “Those sprints are good for getting you in shape, but at the end of the day if you’re not going hard on every play in practice, you’re going to suffer during the games because every play is full-speed in a game.

“I loved it. “

Bacher can’t picture Fitzgerald coaching any other team. He can’t picture any other man coaching at Northwestern.

Hawkeye players say the same about Ferentz.

Fitzgerald has a 7-5 record as head coach against the team that once broke his leg and his heart.

One thing is clear: He and Ferentz will have many more years of staring at each other across the sidelines. Like looking into a mirror.

Northwestern (5-4, 5-1) at Iowa (6-3, 3-3)

Where: Kinnick Stadium

Kickoff: 2:42 p.m.

TV: Fox (Joe Davis, Brady Quinn, Bruce Feldman)

Line: Hawkeyes by 10 1/2

Weather: Cloudy and 31 degrees; winds from southwest at 5-10 mph